Gregory Thornbury, former professor of philosophy at Union University and now president of the King’s College, believes that the era of classical evangelicalism, represented by Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, John R. W. Stott and most pronounced, Carl Henry, is quickly slipping away. He fears that “perhaps the evangelicalism I ‘signed up for’ is gone forever. Worse yet, perhaps it never even existed” (p. 32). In fact, many leading theologians today see classical evangelicalism and Henry, its main intellectual promoter, as relics of a bygone era (pp. 11, 21, 30). Thornbury hopes to reverse this view by reintroducing Henry to a generation that has marginalized him. This is necessary partly because even Henry’s fans find him almost incomprehensible. As Millard Erickson quipped about Henry’s work, “I hope someday that it is translated into English” (p. 24). The author attempts to do just that by, in essence, paraphrasing his second and fourth volumes of God, Revelation and Authority and The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Even Thornbury’s attempt at explaining Henry’s work is heavy lifting at times, requiring the reader to have a substantial knowledge of theological issues and past movements and a good grasp of the debate(s) at hand. For those that do, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism offers much insight.
At his best Henry was a stalwart of the faith, especially, as his six volume Magnum Opus suggests, concern the doctrines of God and revelation. He was instrumental in starting the National Association of Evangelicals, Fuller Seminary, Christianity Today, Lausanne Congress, World Vision and Prison Fellowship (p. 27). But his legacy lies in the fact that he was the leading Christian thinker of his time (p. 37). He was constantly engaged with epistemology—how do we know truth (pp. 37-38)? His response was to turn to the reliability and authority of Scripture (p. 40). Henry championed propositional revelation. He wrote,
The Christian ontological axiom is the living, self-revealed God. The Christian epistemological axiom is the intelligible divine revelation. All the essential doctrines of the Christian world-life view flow from these axioms… (p. 53)
It is Henry’s position on propositional truth which is under attack today. The question remains: “Is there truth and does God reveal truth in intelligible words?” Henry staked his ministry on an affirmative answer. Today he is criticized as being “slavish to Enlightenment rationalism” (p. 56). Henry knew, despite rhetoric to the contrary, that truth demands an authoritative structure. Postmodern epistemology may deny all truth claims, but in order to do so it must rest on a philosophical position of authority itself. Henry believes that God has revealed Himself in words and those words are found in Scripture (p. 61). Henry also had the knowledge and foresight to see what happens when the Christian community questions propositional truth. He knew Albrecht Ritschl’s influence did not take effect until a generation after his death (p. 21), and when Friedrich Schleiermacher separated truth from revelation he merely shifted his authority to experience (p. 73). Henry therefore warned that softening our views on propositional revelation, or seeking to find new understandings of justification (as the New Perspective on Paul does) could undo the evangelical project (p. 28).
In modern times Henry’s views have been replaced by numerous “postconservative evangelicals” who claim that polemical theology is out and other approaches are in (p. 97). While Henry would say that God gets to interpret Himself (p. 100), and He does so propositionally in Divine revelation, postconservatives have taken different approaches:
Literary or narrative hermeneutics teaches that all interpretation of the Bible flows from the narrative alone. The reader should not be concerned with objective truth. The Bible is therefore literally but not historically true (pp. 84-97).
Speech-act theory promoted by Kevin Vanhoozer claims the truth or falsity of an utterance matters significantly less than the question of whether the utterances “gets the job done.” Genesis one, for example, need not be literally true, it may merely be a poetic way of describing creation but not giving a true or literal account of how creation took place (pp. 102-107).
Postmodern: While Henry taught that God spoke in intelligent words and this fundamentally set the agenda for how we approach theology (p. 109), postmodern thinkers reject this understanding. Such views have completely changed the theological playing field and Thornbury believes there is no going back (p. 109).
Most evangelicals are verbal adherents to scriptural authority, but when the details are examined they are allowing for human error, myths and inaccuracies in the biblical texts (pp. 118-125). In response to Karl Barth who believed the canon was prone to error, Henry taught inerrancy (pp. 136-149). Thornbury concludes “that a recovery of confidence in propositional revelation and an inerrant Bible is, despite now decades of neglect and/or disdain, the last stand between the evangelical community and a new error of radical hermeneutics” (p. 158).
With this emphasis on propositional truth, I would stand firmly in Henry’s camp. However we would part ways with much of his social agenda. Henry “was willing to collaborate [I would call it compromise] with anyone who was deeply committed to the Great Tradition of the church…” (p. 117), with this Thornbury is in agreement (p. 192). Henry’s collaboration was based on his view that our greatest witness is found in a “loving, gospel-motivated church engaged with the concerns, ails, joys, and sorrows of the planet around them” (p. 151). While there is truth in this statement it is easily abused as I believe Henry himself is guilty of doing. He writes, “Social justice is not, moreover, simply an appendage to the evangelical message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel itself is truncated” (p. 152). Thus Henry co-mingled the biblical gospel with the social gospel and set the agenda for the recent “social-gospel” movement which will have the same result as the social gospel movement of the last century had (see pp. 151-176 on Henry’s views related to the culture and the gospel).
Henry was rightly concerned that evangelicals in his day were exchanging their heritage for a mess of postmodern pottage and wondered which “drummer” might be leading the parade next (pp. 204-205). Thornbury has done an excellent job of interpreting Henry and calling evangelicals back to Henry’s passion—a firm conviction in the authoritative, propositional, inerrant revelation of God. He has also exposed Henry’s greatest weaknesses: willingness to compromise and not applying his own understanding of biblical authority to the cultural issues around him. In his attempt to engage the culture he led evangelism to adopt the culture rather than call it to reveal godless culture.
Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher, Southern View Chapel